Kern County and the City of Bakersfield have struggled for years to deal with the proliferation of medical marijuana dispensaries in metropolitan Bakersfield.
Now, with legal pot already here and the legalization of commercial cannabis in California just months away, the stakes are going up.
The two governmental entities seem to be on different paths.
This week, the Bakersfield City Council reinforced its current ban on the commercial cultivation, processing and sales of marijuana to adults in the city.
The following day, the Kern County Planning Commission recommended that the Kern County Board of Supervisors allow commercial weed sales to go forward and regulate it strictly.
And the two sides have thrown shade at each other’s approach.
In a video, Bakersfield City Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan portrayed the county as being willing to sell out county citizens in exchange for millions of dollars in tax revenue from pot sales.
A county report pointed out that, despite a long-term ban, there are between 60 and 80 illegal marijuana dispensaries operating in the city of Bakersfield right now.
What the two agencies agree on is that the current state of things — with more than 120 dispensaries in the entirety of Kern County — isn’t the best situation.
“What we have right now is a perfect environment for criminal enterprises,” said Supervisor Leticia Perez. “We have really struggled to rein this stuff in.”
But, for the most part, Kern County has failed to make an impact, said County Counsel Mark Nations.
The county had a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries for a time and was only able to close down a few of those operations through civil actions, Nations said.
“We need an aggressive all-out assault on these organizations,” said Perez.
The City of Bakersfield’s proposed ban on commercial cannabis activity passed with little fanfare or comment during the Oct. 11 City Council meeting.
The council voted 5-1 in favor of an ordinance that bans all commercial cannabis activity within city limits. Councilman Willie Rivera voted against the ordinance while Councilman Chris Parlier was absent for the vote.
Rivera was one of the only council members to discuss the issue before the ordinance was put to a vote. He believes that the new ban won’t be any more successful in reducing illegal activity than the medical marijuana ban passed in 2013.
“Since we’ve had a ban in 2013, how effective has it been?” he asked. “Based on just driving from my home to this council meeting, I can tell you it quite obviously has not worked. I have one right across the street from my home and I have five within one and a half blocks of my house.”
Rivera said the move doesn’t make financial sense either in that not only will the ban prevent the city from obtaining any tax revenue from marijuana operations, the city is also spending money to enforce the ban and remove illegal operations from the city.
“I’d be willing to bet that since our ban in 2013, we’ve collected less than $1 from this particular industry that operates within city limits and seems to do rather well within the city limits,” he said. “At the same time, we’ve spent more than $1 on enforcement in either response to incidents at particular dispensaries or in our legal efforts to actually shut down particular dispensaries. I think we’re being very foolish in not reconsidering our approach to these dispensaries in this city.”
With the county Planning Commission voting in support of regulation, Councilwoman Sullivan said she was concerned about the different approaches to cannabis.
“I feel our entire county should be in favor of the ban. We should be standing together,” she said. “I think (having different approaches) is going to make things more difficult. It’s going to confuse people. We are a conservative county, and we should recognize the dangers of marijuana.”
Proponents of allowing pot-related businesses to operate legally in the city and county said they weren’t surprised by the City Council’s decision. However, they expressed hope about the county’s position.
“I’m hoping that the county makes the right decision and decides to regulate,” said Bakersfield resident Heather Epps. “I would hope any reasonable person would see that if there’s not any regulation, honest business owners are going to walk away and go into something they won’t get in trouble for. If (council members) took a step back and met with people and educated themselves a little bit more, they may see things in a different light.”
Phil Ganong, a Bakersfield lawyer who helped create pro-cannabis advocacy group Kern Citizens for Patient Rights, said he was impressed with the level of research the county planning commissioners did in preparing for their vote.
“I was very pleased to see the commissioners voting in favor. I was glad to see them making evidence-based decisions rather than emotion-based decisions,” he said. “They were being extremely responsible. It reflects a new view in Kern County that is so refreshing from the old mentality.”
Ganong said he is hopeful that the county Board of Supervisors will also be supportive of regulation. However, even if the supervisors do support it, he said that still leaves the issue of the city’s current ban.
“If you’ve got licenced activity in the county, it’s clearly going to come into the city, and the city wouldn’t be able to regulate it," he said. "If the city and the county both regulate it, then they’ll have open books on everyone that’s there.”
Unlike the city, the county has yet to firmly set its cannabis course, but the planning commissioners are mostly in agreement.
“If you don’t like marijuana and you’re against it, I’m sorry,” said Planning Commissioner Oxchitl Garcia. “We may be a conservative county but we are part of the state of California.”
Commissioner Chad Louie worried, as many people do, that allowing commercial sales would create unsafe situations in the community. However, the other commissioners rejected that stance.
“I think regulation is the best way to protect health, safety and welfare,” said Commissioner Chris Babcock. “Going with option B (regulation) will actually protect the community. It will give a better chance to keep the drugs away from the kids.”
But will that really be the case? Lorelei Oviatt, Kern County's planning and natural resources director, said she believes it will.
Unlike medical marijuana legislation, she said, Proposition 64 creates three state regulatory agencies.
“The State of California now has a major vested interest in $1 billion from a legal industry,” Oviatt said.
Getting that money, she said, will require the state to take an active role in licensing and regulating the industry.
There is an effort underway to have the California Highway Patrol police Prop. 64. And there is an unconventional tool that only a regulatory approach would give the county, she said.
“The industry itself is very well-funded,” she said. “In Los Angeles and other places they have been very successful,” bringing lawsuits against illegal dispensaries for unfair business practices.
They’ve put gray market dispensaries out of business, she said, because the legitimate dispensaries can sue for damages where the city and county cannot.
“Those damages can be very very high,” she said.
The bottom line, Oviatt said, is that with regulation the county has more tools to go after the illegal shops and hold legal shops accountable for being good citizens.
Perez and fellow Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason say they haven’t made up their mind about how they will vote when the issue comes to supervisors on Oct. 24. They’re still struggling to decide whether they’ll follow the city’s path or the route recommended by the Planning Commission.
“There are good people with good arguments on both sides of this coin,” Gleason said. “Public safety and public health are critical issues that have to be resolved.”
He said he’s been talking to his constituents and plans to “dive deep” into the environmental report on the issue prepared by Oviatt’s team.
“I’m keeping my mind open. I’m listening to my constituents,” he said.
Perez said she’s still working to decide. However she said, “I thought it compelling that the majority of the Planning Commission believes that the county is best off — all things considered — with regulation and local control.”